The Austin Chronicle

Austin @ Large: Unclean Hands

Prop. 1 and Prop. 2 are not "open," not "clean" – and definitely not progressive

By Mike Clark-Madison, May 5, 2006, News

I've spent nearly 20 years in Austin as a progressive writer and journalist, a longtime advocate for libraries and information services, and an active citizen and neighborhood leader. I've watched progressive Austin move from the counterculture into the mainstream – making Austin a better place in so many ways – and now I watch, somewhat stunned, as a handful of activist leaders try to turn back the clock. In my considered opinion, there's nothing progressive about either Propositions 1 or 2, and that's why I'm voting against them and urging others to do the same.

First, Prop. 1, the Open Government amendment. Let's get one thing out of the way off the bat: The crises that amendment backers have cited as reasons we need this amendment – AMD, the Gables, Green Water Treatment Plant, police records, and the union contract, whatever – have next-to-squat to do with government "secrecy." They are all about plain-old city politics. They all represent political battles in which the Prop. 1 posse has come out on the losing side.

To me, this does not suggest that Austin's civic leadership has become terminally corrupt. Rather, it suggests that the Prop. 1 posse isn't very good at the real work of city politics, and/or that its positions on the issues are not nearly as broadly shared by the citizenry as it likes to think. Prop. 1 is an attempt to tilt the playing field to the posse's advantage – in a way that other progressive activists and leaders, on a whole host of issues and fronts, have not needed to get good things done.

Providing this useful service to Prop. 1's backers is not worth millions of dollars out of the city budget. The real cost of implementing Prop. 1 may be less than the city fears – although based on the city's past experience with complicated custom information systems, I'd say City Hall is right to worry. But it's still money that could be better spent providing actual services to benefit the 750,000 average citizens of Austin who have little interest in who said what at an after-work City Hall happy hour. If Prop. 1 were progressive, it would be designed to provide the greatest benefits to the greatest number. It does pretty much the opposite.

As a library advocate, I feel very strongly about this point because the Austin Public Library's mission is already to provide information services and access to the citizenry. Spending more than half of the library's annual budget on an "open government" system that most Austinites neither demand nor will use is, to echo another vocal library supporter you may know, Just Nuts. The library gets more than 3.2 million visits a year. Will more than a million visitors be trolling the Open Government system to find out about the happy-hour happy talk? That's the level of use it would need to be as cost-effective, on a per-user basis, as the library is.

The fact that there's a good chance we won't have a 2006 bond election if Prop. 1 passes – which further delays progress toward an absolutely essential new central library – just makes this worse. If the Prop. 1 posse were really serious about using public information to benefit the lives of the citizens at large, they would be moving forward with a broad coalition, including library supporters and educators and researchers and everyone else in the information business, and a real implementation plan and vision for how an open-government system could work effectively. The fact that the amendment's backers (and authors) have quite publicly washed their hands of any responsibility in this regard proves to me that Prop. 1 is just a ridiculously burdensome means to a very narrow end.

Starve the Beast

Now, for Prop. 2, the Save Our Springs amendment. Of course I want to save the springs. All decent people do. It's become extremely tiresome to be told, as almost every progressive in Austin has been told, that there's no room for diversity of opinion on how this goal can best be achieved. If there were a magic formula that, once implemented, would create and sustain in perpetuity exactly the kind of relationship Austin wants and needs with its natural environment, it would have been put in place a long time ago.

Clearly, the original SOS ordinance wasn't the magic formula. Neither is Prop. 2; in fact, it, too, is pretty much the opposite of what I'd see as a truly progressive strategy for securing sustainability. It endeavors to establish by decree and dogma the marching orders of all future Austinites on this subject. In a host of ways, it removes people from the process – not just those bad, corrupt people in power, but all people, and all good ideas those people may want to apply for the benefit of all Austinites.

That's assuming, of course, that the various provisions of Prop. 2 survive their court challenges, which some clearly won't. Or that they were enforceable in any meaningful sense, which some clearly aren't. Or that the city charter will be interpreted by future leaders the way Prop. 2 authors want it to be, which it clearly won't be. (The city charter also requires the council to zone land in accordance with its adopted comprehensive plan, which is nearly 30 years old. If this had in fact been done for the last 30 years, this whole debate would not be necessary.)

Let's pretend, just for grins, that Prop. 2 will in fact lead to real change and real impact in how Austin approaches the aquifer. Would it be positive change? What I see in Prop. 2 is a starve-the-beast strategy – declaring a large chunk of the city of Austin and its surrounds off-limits to any kind of meaningful public investment or planning. The erstwhile countryside of America is littered with sprawl that emerged in the wake of just such strategies, which have been part of anti-urban "progressive" planning schemes for decades. The only way to accomplish what Prop. 2's authors want their measure to accomplish is to literally ban development over the Edwards Aquifer. This will not happen in my lifetime in Texas, and even if it were possible, it's not what Austin wants. Of this I am sure.

Cultural Warfare

As a neighborhood leader and resident of East Austin, I've seen firsthand what happens when the city decides, as a matter of policy, to turn its back and withhold its energies and investments from one part of town. There is nothing progressive about enshrining discrimination, redlining, and neglect in the city charter – which is what the city did for decades in East Austin, and which is what Prop. 2 does to Southwest Austin. The fact that the southwest is wealthier and whiter makes no difference.

Or at least it makes no difference to me; I think it's very clear that it does make a difference to the people who brought you Prop. 2. It has not been pleasant watching the "progressive" agenda in Austin deteriorate from solution-oriented consensus-building for the common good into an irrational pre-emptive culture war. I don't think that's what a lot of people who signed petitions to put "clean water and clean government" on the ballot were lining up to support. But if Props. 1 and 2 win, that's what they're going to get. end story

Mike Clark-Madison was a longtime staff writer and city editor for the Chronicle, where he wrote a city politics column, "Austin@Large." He is now an editorial director and analyst in partnership with TateAustin as well as in his own firm, At Large Partners. This column was first written, in a slightly different form, for the Educate PAC, an organization opposing city ballot propositions 1 and 2, and appeared at

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